I feel like I should say something about Britney Spears.
There are so many things I need to write about just now. This is what happens when you catch your middle schooler’s head cold and take a couple of days off. There are a million and one important news items I have to catch up on for the blog, and I have other writing projects going on as well, but I keep coming back to Britney Spears.
I knew next to nothing about Britney Spears. I know she’s just about my age. She’s beautiful and a talented dancer. I don’t like her music very much, which reflects far more on me being a grouchy nerd than on her music. I did not grow up listening to her as most Millennial girls did. I listened to hymns and show tunes and Christian rock. But of course I knew who she was. She was that famous girl my age who was used as a cautionary tale. We were to be chaste followers of Christ who covered our bodies instead of being immodest like Britney Spears.
That was just one of those things that was said in the youth group, if you went to youth group in the late 90s and early oughts. “Remember to be modest for your future husband. You don’t want to be like Britney Spears.”
It turns out that Britney Spears didn’t want to be like Britney Spears either. The poor woman never had a choice in her life. But that’s getting ahead of the story. I thought she was a ditz and a sinner. The good chaste pro-life Catholics all around me spoke of her as a scandalous doxy, and then we went back to listening to Christian rock. I still like Jars of Clay.
Every once in awhile I would see on the news or read in a magazine that she was doing something else scandalous, and shake my head.
When Spears famously had her breakdown, I was at Franciscan University. My mother asked me “where were you when Britney Spears shaved her head?” and treated it like a joke. I watched her carted off to a mental hospital on the news– such a private, humiliating moment broadcast to all the world and portrayed as comeuppance for her being a brat. I thought of it that way too, but inside it also stung. I’m not a person with a clean bill of mental health myself, after all. Would I deserve it if somebody did that to me?
At some point my mother and I watched Craig Ferguson’s famous and beautiful monologue about why he wouldn’t make fun of Britney Spears, and felt guilty, didn’t talk about her anymore.
Somewhere along the line I heard something about a conservatorship which sounded odd, but I didn’t pay attention.
And then the news began to come out, bit by bit. I heard her desperate plea to the judge and was shocked. My friend the social worker weighed in on how strange and abusive this conservatorship arrangement was, and how she couldn’t imagine how it was allowed to go on. I agreed. A conservatorship for a severely mentally ill relative is usually a very short term arrangement, for someone far more impaired. How could anyone get away with being a conservator for a sick relative and then forcing that person to dance half naked on a stage whether they wanted to or not? Whoever heard of making money, let alone millions of dollars, from a conservatorship? Why didn’t someone intervene sooner?
It cast her whole life in a different light, to say the least.
Now she’s been free for two years. I’ve reserved a copy of her book at the library. I’m eagerly reading the reviews, and I’m in shock.
The way her family’s exploitation of the child star brought them out of poverty and turned her sister into a spoiled princess. The way her parents used her when they should have cared for her. The way her whole image was curated for her by her publicists, and not who she really was at all. How cleverly she managed her performances, while still being treated like an airhead. The creepy men who watched her performances when she was still a minor. The harrowing story of Justin Timberlake hounding her into an abortion she didn’t want, and the way she was denied a trip to the hospital when the cramping and bleeding became severe. Man after man used her to become famous and broke her heart. Her father became her tyrannical master who wouldn’t even let her drink coffee or have her IUD removed. She had no freedom. She had no choices. Her acting out that seemed so funny to us, was a desperate attempt to be herself instead of a pornographic figure for other people.
Now she’s free, and badly traumatized, and doesn’t want to make music anymore.
None of this was her idea.
She is not a bratty slut to be held up as a bad example in a youth group– not that anybody ever is. She’s a different kind of cautionary tale. She is what can happen if you look at somebody flailing and don’t realize that person is being abused.
I’m so sad, I don’t know what to say.
I guess I want to say that I’m sorry.
I want to say that I hope the rest of her life is fulfilling for her.
Let’s try to be better to one another.
Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross, The Sorrows and Joys of Mary, and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.